Pierre Legrain - Design London Thursday, May 12, 2022 | Phillips

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  • Pierre Legrain: A Monstre Sacré of Art Deco


    By Laurence Salmon, Historian and Author of Pierre Legrain, Reliures, Meubles, Cadres, Paris, Éditions Norma, 2019


    Born in 1888, Pierre-Émile Legrain shot through the 1920s like a comet, with a rare intensity, as if he foresaw his fate: a life cut short by a fragile heart. He drew everything: fashion illustrations, perfume bottles for Vuitton, book bindings, picture frames, tableware, seats, textiles, furniture, lighting, cigarette cases, the bodywork of a Delage automobile. He even designed a set for a ballet performance at the Opéra Garnier, as well as a cubist garden to which he applied his innate sense of composition.
    While it is impossible to trace his entire body of work due to a lack of sufficient archival records, it is evident that his designs known to us today are a testament to his deeply original and powerful oeuvre.

    His signature - pierre-é-legrain - appeared for the first time in 1909 in the pages of the satirical magazine Le Témoin, founded in 1906 by Paul Iribe, a draftsman, editor and pioneer of Art Deco. Legrain assisted him in all his endeavours until he became the artistic director of his interior design house at no. 104 Faubourg Saint-Honoré. His first piece of furniture, a vide-poche in lacquered mahogany marked PL, dates from 1916.
    As the war made work scarce, Iribe chose to go into exile and the young artist Legrain thought to seek out Jacques Doucet, a millionaire and the epitome of Parisian elegance who collected cubist paintings, African art and modern manuscripts. Also a couturier, Doucet became Legrain’s mentor between 1917 and 1919; his tastes predisposed him to seek harmony through all his acquisitions. Perceiving the extent of his protégé's talent, Doucet encouraged him to ‘dress’ his books and urged him: ‘search, work, create; I will support you with my trust, I will not blame you for your possible failures, because I have faith in your star’. Disregarding conventions, the novice Pierre Legrain asserted his ingenuity and made his mark on the art of 20th century bookbinding, which until then had been limited to the uninspired motifs of ornamental flora.
    With him, bookbinding elevated text through geometric symbolism. Legrain was obsessed with the line and the letter. ‘It’s a lyrical compass’, enthusiastically noted the critic Henri Clouzot. Legrain was the revelation of the Salon des Artistes décorateurs in 1920 that hailed him as the undisputed master of modern bookbinding.

    From then on, he freed himself from Doucet’s supervision and responded to requests from an exceptional clientele, mainly comprising bibliophiles who recognised the potential of his many talents. These not only included the indisputable modiste Jeanne Tachard, the whimsical music-hall artist Pierre Meyer, but also Freud’s friend, Marie Bonaparte, the Viscount de Noailles, Hubert de Monbrison, the music-loving patron Jeanne Dubost, the Louise Boulanger fashion house, Elsie de Wolfe also known as Lady Mendl amongst others.
    The ensemblier Pierre Legrain conveyed his distinctive taste in furnishing through these patrons’ interiors, including his predilection for sharp shapes, beautiful materials, and the selection of rare colour tones, all of which made the success of his mosaic-esque book bindings. The components of his style were identifiable from one of his commissions to the next. He adopted metal, glass, mirror while not forsaking the use of varied and exotic wood species (palm wood, Macassar ebony, rosewood and more). For Legrain, the object is not merely functional; it is also a visual and tactile pleasure for the senses. His work is riddled with unexpected materials combinations: parchment, bone, mother-of-pearl, shagreen, cork amongst others.
    He multiplied the use of the sphere and the cube and had a penchant for the triangle as well cut-off shapes which give a striking visual dynamism to his bound volumes. The eye seems to bounce off the multiplication of these angular shapes.
    Legrain repeated certain signature formal details such as the particular construction of certain objects and furniture whose lower section is set between two uprights on either side. This is the case of the present lot which is sheathed in parchment and covered in ebony. While a few rare pieces by Pierre Legrain have been produced in two or three examples, this lidded tabouret with a sycamore interior is the only known example to exist. An archival photograph of Jeanne Tachard’s Paris boudoir shows an identical lidded tabouret in front of an inverted omega-shaped dressing table that Legrain designed for the house of Vuitton in 1921. The paired down design of the entire space perfectly illustrates his personal approach to modern interiors.


    An identical tabouret in Madame Tachard’s boudoir, Paris, circa 1920 
    © Archives Gilles Peyroulet

    ‘A perfectly machined hexagonal nut is worth as much as a wreath and, in my view, better speaks today’s language’, declared Pierre Legrain in 1924, in the pages of the Bulletin de la vie artistique. These words unambiguously reveal his desire to inscribe his work in the spirit of an era marked by new stimuli born out of progress and technology. His famous corner ‘Avion’ bookcase appears as a testament of his curiosity for the beauty of the mechanical. His passion for the automobile goes so far as to inspire his design for saddle-style sheathing and for the press-stud cushion of an astonishing leather seat. 
    The daring decorator-bookbinder Legrain asserted himself alongside Raymond Templier and Pierre Chareau, his peers from the UAM-Union des Artistes Moderns, and took part in the debates which agitated the decorative arts in the aftermath of the 1925 exhibition. Although tempted, he did not pursue industrial production. With him, formal beauty could take precedence over practical aspects practice because he loved ‘the object for the pure joy of a reflection, a sound, a temperature, a luxury’ as he wrote in L’Art international d’aujourd’hui in 1927. Before his sudden passing in 1929, at the age of 40, he described himself as ‘a brave man of the times’ who devoted himself to the worship of beauty.

    • Provenance

      Camard & Associés, Paris, 29 November 2006, lot 111
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Literature

      Laurence Salmon, Pierre Legrain: Reliures, Meubles, Cadres, Paris, 2019, p. 137, illustrated p. 218


Rare lidded tabouret

circa 1920
African ebony, ebonised pear wood, sycamore, sycamore-veneered wood, parchment, leather.
41.7 x 43.5 x 31 cm (16 3/8 x 17 1/8 x 12 1/4 in.)

Full Cataloguing

£60,000 - 80,000 

Sold for £151,200

Contact Specialist

Antonia King

Head of Sale, Design
+44 20 7901 7944



London Auction 12 May 2022